The Drexel route lends a helping hand to the Mütter Museum

A class visit to the Mütter Museum used historical artifacts and discussions. Photo courtesy of Jacqui Bowman.

“As someone considering a career in public history and the museum field, I was only aware of ethical discourses in the museum world at a superficial level,” said Karen Li, BA History’ 22. “This course gave me the opportunity to learn how to engage in reflections and conversations about ethical considerations of museums, public history and justice as they relate to the autonomy of human bodies and human remains .”

The course of Drexel University? It was a special subjects course, “Philadelphia’s Black Doctors,” which Li took last term, completing a group project related to what she described as “the ethics of marginalizing language used in medical records”.

Taught by Associate Professor Sharrona Pearl, PhD, of the College of Nursing & Health Professions, the interdisciplinary course helped students become familiar with the real-world applications of medical ethics and museums in the 21st century. In addition to course readings, response papers, and class discussions, students also worked hand-in-hand with staff at the Mütter Museum, a notable Philadelphia institution educating visitors about the history and culture of medicine through anatomical and medical artifacts. Site visits explored how to continue the museum’s exhibits and offerings to the public, and also update internal procedures related to donor consent forms as well as archival texts and objects.

Masked students pose on a table with primary source documents during an on-site visit to the museum.  Photo courtesy of Jacqui Bowman.

Students looked at primary source documents during a site visit to the museum. Photo courtesy of Jacqui Bowman.

“The opportunity to have this introspective engagement with solid historical material and then to collectively discuss and critically engage with these issues was powerful,” Pearl said. “Anchoring these theoretical discussions with practical engagement and work built from real needs was just incredibly exciting.”

The course schedule (minus a pivot to virtual classrooms due to the COVID-19 pandemic) coincided with the Mütter Museum’s future project showing the history of black doctors and black hospitals in Philadelphia, as well as a recent subsidy related to the ethics of posting . The museum’s staff and archives “really opened up to us,” Pearl said.

“Many of the documents in the Historical Medical Library (HML) of the Mütter Museum are medical texts that are decades or centuries old and contain outdated/validist language. Some of this language is reflected in the subject headings that scholars use to navigate the collection,” said History and Art History graduate Jamie Clifford. “Heidi Nance, the director of HML, took us through the debates surrounding language in the archives: should we update subject headings to reflect the language we use today, or preserve historically accurate language (well potentially dangerous) We worked to create a brochure for distribution to researchers acknowledging the contents of the HML collection and introducing visitors to these ethical challenges.

Students studying books at a table in the Mutter Museum.

Students reviewed examples of some of the marginalizing terms used to describe patients, as preserved in the museum. Photo courtesy of Jacqui Bowman.

Primary source documents were also studied for Mobolawa Adio’s group project related to the Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital, the first African-American hospital in Philadelphia. “I think it’s important to understand the contributions that black medical specialists have made in their own communities. It’s also an important part of Philadelphia’s history, and it’s sad that it isn’t discussed as much as it should be,” said Adio, Public Health ’23.

Nalo Russell, BA Global Studies and Spanish Minor ’24, said she “learned important skills in conservation, historical analysis, modern repairs and human anatomy”, by completing an enhanced consent form of the living donor for the biological material of the donor. “Too often, body donations are orchestrated by museum staff and liaisons; however, our form challenges this practice by ensuring donor inclusivity,” she added.

The idea to develop the course came to Pearl after training to teach a community learning course through Drexel’s Lindy Center for Civic Engagement. She contacted the Mütter Museum as a possible community partner. Drexel’s Lenfest Center for Cultural Partnerships supported the class, which was taught by Pearl as an overload course in addition to other teachings.

An image that Nalo Russell created for an Instagram post announcing the launch of the donation form created in one of the group projects.  The picture reads "The Legacy Project: ensuring the integrity and autonomy of our donors.  The Mutter Museum" above an image of the interior of the Mutter Museum and a cabinet of skulls.  Photo credit: Nalo Russell.

An image that Nalo Russell created for an Instagram post announcing the launch of the donation form created in one of the group projects. Photo credit: Nalo Russel.

“The Lenfest Center supports teachers who want to partner with non-profit cultural organizations by funding courses on special topics. These courses allow students to apply what they learn to challenges identified by nonprofit organizations,” said Rosalind Remer, PhD, executive director of the Lenfest Center and senior vice provost for university collections and exhibits. “This course was a perfect case study of how this type of partnership can enrich the experience of students in their courses, showcase the research expertise of faculty, and deepen the relationship between Drexel and these organizations. I was so impressed and excited to see the amazing work the students have done with the Mütter Museum.

The course was listed in the Department of History, the African Studies Minor program and through the Center for Science, Technology and Society in the College of Arts and Sciences, and brought together students from different fields through the University.

James C. Tibbs